Monday, December 2, 2013

Filling out content

In addition to the playtesting I've been doing to piece the core plot of the game together from start to finish, I've also been working on designing and adding in some extra content that has been in my mind for a while. I'm talking about "light content", which is the little subquests that revolve more around exploration and puzzle solving that reward the inquisitive player.  Generally, these things are much less time consuming and demanding to implement for me than fully fledged quests. Think of these quests like the "Chanter's Board" quests from Dragon Age, but without a central location to kick them off for you.

There are a few things that I want to make sure that I do with these quests in order to make them interesting, and so am trying to follow a few principles when creating them.

Don't make it immediately obvious

The point here is that I want the player to start the quest by finding something, not by going to a person with a marker above their head or a notice board in the middle of a village. It could be a journal, a scrap of paper, a strange item, some kind of key, or anything really.  The main point is that the player should find something that gives them a clue that there is something else that they could do or find.

Require exploration
These objects should be spread out across the areas that the player will explore - they won't just be found in the main locations that every player will have to visit. The levels I've created for the mod are reasonably large - and I'd like to encourage players to explore them. With many modern games, we're often forced down very linear paths, so trying to get players to search and experience the fun of exploration is something I'd like to be able to do.

Monsters are easy to find, these should require more effort

Puzzles can be fun
One thing I find really annoying about puzzles in many games is that they're either really obscure and illogical (the worst of Monkey Island syndrome, or Anna), or blatantly obvious (Towers of Hanoi).  The other annoyance is when puzzles are presented in a way that they're not solvable when you encounter them, either because you don't have the right skills/items to solve them (e.g. Batman, Assassin's Creed), or worse, that the player cannot complete the puzzle until they are explicitly told what to do. Where I implement puzzles, I want the player to be given enough information to carry them out, but without beating them over the head with an answer. This is a tough balance, but I'm hoping to provide a mix of puzzles that should be interesting.

Use player skills
Skills like tracking, herbalism, pick pocketing and the like are things that are often neglected by designers. Even in Dragon Age itself, it felt like these were mostly for facilitating combat rather than being useful for anything else.  I want to be able to use these skills to assist, or possibly even be required to complete some of these quests.

Give rewards
The player should get something from these kinds of quests. They're exploring, uncovering secrets and the like, and thus should be rewarded with different and unique items as a result. This is the icing on the cake to make the player go "that was awesome!" This is where I'll be giving out the most interesting and powerful items in the game, because it rewards dedicated players, and makes people want to explore and find those hidden secrets.

So that's my update for this week. Stay tuned for another update next week!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Testing Progress: Fixing companions and falling off the edge of the world.

After my recent reinstall, testing has resulted in a bunch of scripting and random undocumented engine issues. Nevertheless there has been some solid, albeit slow and frustrating progress on some more difficult problems.

Showstopper issues tackled this time included:
  • The player appearing off the edge of the map after traveling to a location via the world map. This came as a result of implementing an area list - which allows the player to easily switch between interior and exterior areas without a major load screen.  Unfortunately some identically named destination waypoints (which are used to set the player's location when entering an area), resulted in the game not knowing where to place the player.
  • Continuity issues in plots resulting in the player being unable to progress the story if they took certain actions.
  • Made companion dialogue work correctly in the toolset again - a reinstall had deleted a custom file that enables it to detect and make use of custom companions. Without this fix, companion interjections in dialogue are impossible... and I've got quite a number of them.
  • A major breakthrough with the player's party members - making sure that they have appropriate skills and specialisations when they join the party.  Since the game starts the player at a higher level, the party members need to have skills that suit their background. There were a bunch of different problems: not receiving correct skills/talent points, not receiving a specialisation or having skills assigned incorrectly (or not being able to assign them at all).  Party members that have half or a third of the hitpoints they should have aren't useful to the player!
This fight was nothing compared to the battle I had solving that last problem...

A few other select issues included:
  • Fixing some level design to improve the flow of play and improve overall appearance.
  • Changing / cutting some recorded dialogue to make the flow of conversation seem more natural.
  • Noted a bunch of areas that felt "empty" for future reference to fill with little bonuses for the exploring player. 
  • Solved an issue where ambient animations for a group of sleeping/injured people would kick in a few seconds after a player entered an area. This resulted in them standing up briefly after the player entered... then suddenly all falling over.  While this was quite amusing, it wasn't really the desired effect. 

So some big and small wins this time around. Hopefully this will continue for the coming week!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Mistakes, bugs and crashes

So in my ongoing playtesting, I've encountered another swag of mistakes and shortcomings, and solved a few issues that have been bugging me for a VERY long time to boot.

To give the highlights:
  • Finally integrated a core sub-plot of the main story into the game properly. Previously I'd been able to go through it separately, but I hadn't done the work to integrate it into game seamlessly.
  • Fixed a bunch of area transitions that weren't working exactly as desired.
  • Repaired dialogue chain issues that could accidentally cause the story to jump forward by quite a bit.
  • Completed and polished some scripting that allowed the player to properly complete some main quests, rather than just having them trigger automatically once enemies were dead. 
  • Fixed up some issues relating to enemies not appearing, not going hostile or not fighting with other NPCs.
  • Characters correctly repositioned after a cutscene; previously they simply didn't go where I wanted them to... because I wasn't calling the correct script.
There was also a bunch of smaller cosmetic stuff that I fixed as well. While I'm not focusing on those kind of issues quite so much at the moment, when I'm noticing them every time I do a playthrough and they're irritating me, it's very difficult NOT to address those problems, particularly when I know what they are. Making things prettier by increased the mesh density of terrain is one such problem. Getting rid of synth voice (when I actually possess line recordings) is another.

When I have time, I also like to make things sparkly

However, one of the BIG things I've been battling with recently is my computer.  I upgraded a few months ago, with a new motherboard, cpu and ram, but didn't do a full OS reinstall. That meant I had to be a bit dodgy in the way I upgraded my drivers to actually get Windows to boot; manually loading drivers via the command prompt works - but doesn't leave your PC in an optimal state.

I subsequently had one of the RAM sticks die, so I was dealing with borrowed RAM to keep my modding going. However, 4Gb of RAM given the horrible state my OS was in with the driver installation job meant that my computer simply wasn't happy and crashed a lot. (I now have 2 "abandons" in DOTA2 due to PC crashes, my guilty pleasure when I'm not modding)

I got sick of this and bought myself an SSD, and have spent many hours today trying to get my computer back and set up just the way I like it.  Hopefully the SSD should provide some speed improvements for my modding efforts (DAO received the privilege of being installed on the SSD), as should the general improved reliability of my computer.

As I type this, I just finished up installing the toolset and restored my database, so I should be good to go. The only disappointing news is that my Awakening disc is apparently quite scratched (I have no idea what from, it mostly just sits in my dvd drive...) and I can't actually install it due to the damage.  This shouldn't actually impact my modding, because I don't recall any Awakening resources appearing in the toolset anyway. Still, it's disappointing should I ever want to play Awakening again, because I can't. :(

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Playtesting: Old and New

One of the big things from doing a bunch of playtesting is that you quickly realise where things don't quite work. This is blatantly obvious when it comes to show-stoppers, of course.  If you can't progress a quest because of some logic error, an area being inaccessible (either in or out) or not receiving an object you need to complete the quest, this is immediately recognisable.

With the title of this post, what I'm talking about is where things don't "fit" quite so well as they should.  While I've been focusing primarily on the big show stoppers, I also hit upon the continuity, realism or general flow of the game issues that mean things just don't come together nicely.  One such issue was relating to a major quest, where part of it occured on the same area as a main town map area.  This was originally to make sure the player got to see the whole town map area, but as I played the game, I realised that it simply didn't fit in terms of the content of the quest.

This means new area time!  Now, in this particular case, I didn't actually want to spent hours and hours on making a new area. This is basically a one-shot area that isn't really designed for much more than a single encounter. I've created almost all my areas from scratch in The Shattered War, but there are a couple where I have used existing work as a base for an area. In this case, I grabbed one of the default areas from DAO... but modified it to suit my own purposes.  Doing this, I've managed to create an entirely new area with basically only a few hours of effort. 

The really good thing about this is that with some clever editing, it's quite easy to change the area such that it's not easily recognisable as one of the original areas even for someone who has played the game a lot.  By removing a bunch of items, changing texturing and vegetation, and doing a few key modifications to the existing terrain, it is possible to make it look dramatically different. Here's a shot of my modified level below - if you've played DAO, see if you can spot where it came from!

You never know what's around the corner...

If you're interested, here's a link to a comparison shot of the original level compared to my modified version.  I'd still like to do a bit more work to the decoration of the level, but given my current focus is getting the mod "content complete", that will have to wait.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Playtesting and Bug Squashing

My modding efforts for the past week have all been working towards my stated goal of getting the game in a more playable state. This was to try to get through as much of the game as I could in its current state. There are still a handful of things that need to be fixed before I can run through from start to finish, but that glue that links all the individual finished components shouldn't be far off.

So the weekend saw me spend a fair amount of time doing a playthrough from the very beginning and exploring as much as I could, noting down any issues along the way.  I'm focusing primarily on the gamebreaking issues, but noting the cosmetic ones as well for future attention. Then, sometimes you just pause for some reason and manage to catch a party member leaping at an Ogre and looking a little bit odd...

Flying goose strike!

The good news is that I managed to get through quite a lot of the mod before I had to stop.  There were, of course, things that I missed, but that's inevitable when you've got an adventure like The Shattered War. Some choices cut off some content, meaning you can't see everything in one playthrough. It also means there will have to be lots of testing before I can finally call it finished.

There were a bunch of little things that tripped me up along the way:
  • I was missing stages for couple of conversations - which unceremoniously dumps the player (and the person they're talking to) outside of the walkable area of the level.
  • I'd moved/renamed some resources/levels, which means they were inaccessible when referenced by name by some scripts/variable names.
  • The ability for supposedly mutually exclusive quest lines to be run simultaneously due to some bad logic.
  • I'd failed to set attach some scripts to plots - so when the player completed particular actions, the necessary consequences didn't occur. While this really puts a dampener on a playthrough, I've done this a few times now, so it's one of the first things I check (and subsequently solve a number of issues in one hit).
Smaller issues were things like:
  • Areas having very quiet ambient sound. To be honest, I'm not actually sure how I can fix some of this, because there's simply no way within the toolset to increase their volume. This is actually one of the most annoying issues, because the ambient sound really makes a huge difference to the overall atmosphere of the area. If anyone with DAO modding knowledge has any idea about this, I'd really love to hear from you.
  • Tweaks to companion approval scripts causing the approval for one of the companions to not work.  
  • Some recorded lines of dialogue were uncharacteristically louder or softer than they should have been. There was a nice conversation and then suddenly ONE OF THE CHARACTERS IS TALKING REALLY LOUDLY.
  • A large battle scene where one side simply refused to fight and simply stood there, oblivious to any combat around them.

On the whole, I've made some great progress, and should be able to make even more over the coming week.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Breaking the Silence

A long overdue blog here for readers...

No, I'm not announcing that I'm no longer working on The Shattered War.  In fact it's pretty much the opposite.  I'll be up front here folks, development has been in "slow time" for the past couple of months. I've been spending maybe an hour a day to work on the mod, and some days I haven't worked on it at all.  As such, things have been progressing slowly. 

Some of the things I've been doing have been very time consuming, but haven't really contributed much to the "content complete" nature of being able to run the mod from start to finish. We're talking dialogue tweaking - the animations, the flow, the voice cuts. It's things like making sure the decorations and appearance of levels is "just right" - making sure they have wind, checking that there are lootable items for players to discover adjusting ambient NPCs and behaviours to make areas "look inhabited.  Then there's creating new custom items and giving them their own descriptions and codex entries.

All this is fantastic stuff and I feel it really adds to that undefinable "quality" factor of a mod, but it's not great for maintaining developer motivation in feeling like you're making progress towards having it "finished".

Perfectly phrased codex entries aren't gameplay

As such, I'm going to switch my focus for the time being on getting the game "content complete" and making it completely playable without glitches and bugs from start to finish. There are a lot of components to the mod and a lot of choices that the player can make, so I'm going to make sure that those can be followed through to completion. This will mean using "unfinished" levels in a few instances, but in this case I'm going to ditch my perfectionist nature so that the mod can be completed.

From now on, I'll be looking to post a weekly update on my progress - so stay tuned for more regular information on the development process!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Witcher 2, or how to fix a game with a sequel

Here's a blog post that I never thought I'd write. It's a blog post in defense of The Witcher 2. Recently, in my spare time and interspersed between my modding sessions, I've been taking some time to play The Witcher 2. For a long time, I had zero interest in this game, because I found its predecessor to be an utterly horrible, boring and poorly designed game. I'll still happily stand by that assessment. That said, I was convinced to play The Witcher 2 (TW2), and despite some initial concerns, I found that many of the complaints I had about the first game were gone.  It was with some amusement that I read an article by Tom Bissell decrying the game and felt myself thinking "you're really not doing the game justice". Hence I thought I'd raise my thoughts in this post.

So I have to say upfront that TW2 is a really good game. One of the first things I noticed was that the game had moved to a paraphrasing rather than full lines of dialogue. While many roleplayers hate this, in this case it's actually a vast improvement on TW1. Conversations are much cleaner and feel as though they provide better player control and allow them to slip into the role of Geralt more easily. Yes - the dialogue was actually improved by paraphrasing, because it fits better with the automatically dialogue and means that the player is told in a more palatable way that "you are roleplaying Geralt" rather than "you are roleplaying how you want".

The tedious MMO quest design of the first game is gone, and the amount of backtracking to repeatedly cover the same ground and kill the same monsters over and over again is significantly reduced. The forest of Act 1 didn't present the same tedium as the swamp in TW1; which is good, because if it had, I would have quit the game.  The liberal and juvenile profanity is replaced with a more mature vocabulary. The game still includes swearing, but it's no longer gratuitous and constant as it was in TW1 - words are actually chosen for effect and characterisation rather than just throwing in swearing to "make the game more mature". Furthermore, most of it makes sense, as opposed to TW1 where there had obviously been some translation issues that left you wondering exactly what was meant by a particular sentence.

Also, it's quite pretty

To address a few particular issues raised in the Grantland article: Complaining about the inventory system in an article that also mentions Skyrim is just plain ludicruous. Compared to Skyrim's system, TW2's inventory is a dream. The complaints about similarities to Tolkien are somewhat misplaced and seem to have missed the point in that their presence is primarily used to push the themes of racism running through the game (and series). Using fantasy races as a means to achieve this is a simpler means than trying to create different human racial groups (which would be fraught with issues), and is also remains true to the source material. The only time I felt the game was aping Tolkien was when it was openly and outright referencing it as part of some sort of joke. The comments about the lack of memorable dialogue is a fair one, but when you're aiming for a darker tone rather than including glib one-liners like the Dragon Age series, it could feel somewhat jarring. I agree wholeheartedly that there are few memorable lines of dialogue, but personally, that's the case for most games. There were a few lines, particularly in the second chapter following the path of Iorveth, that were hilarious.

Of particular note is the way the plot plays out and the choices that the player gets to make. These are nothing short of excellent, so if this at all matters to you as a gamer, then you should be willing to overlook the shortcomings of the game to experience these. While TW1 had some reasonable options in this regard, it really felt like it bludgeoned you with the results of those with utterly fourth wall breaking vignettes that highlighted the effects of choices. TW2 does have some animated sequences that fulfil a similar role, but they delivered in a way that in consistent with some of these that are done as pure storytelling, and hence feel like they're providing additional background and context rather than highlighting the consequence of a choice in most cases.

The style feels a bit strange in contrast to the rest of the game, but they work far better than TW1's vignettes

The game does put the player in some great quandaries, and in more than a few cases gives you choices where there's no "great" outcome. While this did happen in the previous game, TW1 could be significantly more depressing, making the player feel as though instead of being a hero, all they were doing was spreading more misery regardless of their choices. While TW2 certainly has its share of bleak moments, it generally lacks the feeling that made the player think "wow, I'm a complete jerk".

TW2 should particularly be commended on its completely divergent second act. This act of the game plays out extremely differently based on a decision you make within the first act, which definitely offers some great replayability value. It also helps give better insight into all the characters and events of the game - getting a different perspective to help understand the motivations of the various characters involved. The short third act is both a blessing and a curse in that it allows the developers to provide a good climax and showcase the results of those choices, but does leave the player feeling as though the ending came abruptly. The epilogue that more or less has a character provide exposition for the remaining loose ends in the story is a bit weak, but it doesn't really tarnish or diminish the choices made like the ending of Mass Effect 3.

Friend or foe? It's your choice.

Of course, I'll concede the point that the game still isn't perfect. There are a few things TW2 gets wrong.  The first is the way it handles combat. It is absolutely awful for any new players. The difficulty curve is plain stupid and gives the player no assistance whatsoever. Most players will die repeatedly and get very frustrated in the game's prologue, or if not, then almost certainly in the second act of the game. The designers simply don't have combat mechanics that gradually introduce players to the intracies of combat and how to manage it. This is complicated by the fact that on the standard difficulty level, the combat really isn't that deep. Sure, at the higher difficulty levels, players have to use every damn tool at their disposal, but that's why higher difficulties are for.

In a good combat system, there will be a variety of techniques the player can use and master, and then combine these to allow for more complex and rewarding gameplay.  TW2 doesn't really have any of that.  You have either light or heavy attacks, and you can dodge. That's pretty much your basic arsenal for an introductory player. Players also can use signs (read: magic), to help protect them or trap an enemy, but until you finally manage to upgrade them, they're of limited value. If the player gets hit from behind at all, they can expect their health to drop significantly. Boss monsters (the first few, at least) can kill a player in one or two hits. Potions, the way the player would prepare for major fights in TW1, can be more difficult to use in some of the major battles due to lengthy sequences beforehand, and in one case completely unusable. All that said, this combat is still dramatically more rewarding than the tedious click-timing combat from TW1, which was sheer mechanical boredom.

Killing harpies for fun and profit

The lore is also still delivered in a somewhat clunky manner. There are points where it just discusses events, places and characters as though the player knows about them, even though that information has never been provided to the player. For players of TW1, some of these will make sense, but a lot of the required lore actually exists within the books, if you don't have that, you're often standing there wondering what everyone is talking about. It's a rookie mistake from writers who don't keep track of what the player knows. The writers have in-depth and intimate knowledge of the game and the lore, which players don't necessarily have. Writers must be mindful of this, but CD Projekt Red still hasn't quite got this down yet. Again, they've definitely improved since TW2.

The chief fault of the game is that the designers expect everyone to know how to play. There are virtually no tooltips, you can't reconfigure bindings, there's no easy mechanism to tell you where to go to do something or what certain icons do in interfaces. You have to know how to play in order to play, because the game certainly will never tell you. Heaven forbid that you've bought a digital version of the game, because even the Enhanced Edition available on Steam doesn't come with a manual in the download. A brief tutorial is not sufficient to tell players everything they need to know to play the game, certainly not an RPG with a raft of passive skills and statistics and numbers that come into play in the combat. Players are almost forced to look at a wiki or forums to find out the information they will probably want/need to know, which is simply not good enough.

This battle can be a lot of trial and error

These problems aside, TW2 is still a really good game.  Even if you hated TW1 as I did, it's worth your while to check out TW2. Despite some issues with the delivery and giving information to the player (both for mechanics and story telling), The Witcher 2 does have some great storytelling and plot twists and turns in it. It definitely delivers in terms of providing the player with choices and then delivering varying consequences based upon those choices. I would recommend it to anyone who likes RPGs, particularly those who enjoy choice and consequence in their games.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

How long does it take to make a level?

Recently I was asked a question about level design and for some advice on how to construct a level. I was also asked about how long it takes to make a level.

As for general advice on how to construct a level, there are entire books on the subject. Achieving a level that is successful both functionally and aesthetically is a challenging task, and the former will depend greatly upon the style of game that is being created. A level for a multiplayer FPS will be vastly different to a story driven FPS, which will be different again to a single player RPG, which will in turn be different from an open world MMO. Simply put, there is no silver bullet solution on how to design a great level. Levels can look great but play horribly, and look horrible yet facilitate great gameplay.

The biggest bit of advice then is to examine good levels for the genre you wish to design for.  If you're looking to create a level for an RPG like Dragon Age, go play single player, story driven RPGs. Of course, this is useless if you're looking to create the latest and greatest FPS map. Examine examples from your chosen genre, and determine what works and what doesn't. Item placement and level movement, chokepoints and dead paths are all important issues in an multiplayer FPS, but irrelevant in an RPG. In this case, you'll be concerned about things like how the level facilitates (or hampers) player combat, potential traps for the player, NPC patterns, and avoiding unnecessary player backtracking.

We don't go to Ravenholm to learn to make a deathmatch map

Ultimately, level design comes down to practice, and lots of it. Furthermore, whenever you switch to a new tool, you're always going to have a learning curve on how to use it effectively. Yes, many of the skills you will learn will transfer; the basic design tenets, but new technology always comes with a learning curve, and after you make a few levels, you'll look back at your starting work and think "that looks horrible." I've done exactly that with some of the early levels I created for The Shattered War (and pretty much every single level creation tool I've ever used).

Finally, the time factor. How long a level takes is widely variable based on the skill level of the person, how complicated the level is and how big the level is.  I've done one level in as little as 15 hours, yet producing Fort Velen took around 60 hours - even more when taking into account finalising it and adding associated waypoints for moving characters, ambient animation and sounds. My most recent level has taken around 35 hours, but again, that's just the base of the level. Sounds, monsters, encounters, scripting and so forth all need to be added before it will be in a playable state.

So to give an indication of what that time creates, here's a look at the near finished product.

A ridge above a gully high in the mountains

Until next time, happy level creating!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Shattered War Progress

It's been a little while since my last update, but there has been quite a fair amount of work since that time...
  • Volume normalisation and cropping of >600 recorded lines of dialogue.
  • VO integration and animation of >300 lines of dialogue
  • Completion of two additional exterior levels
  • Scripting and debugging of two major quest lines
I realise this isn't a terribly exciting update, but this is just to demonstrate the kind of effort that's required to release a completely voiced package. I'm currently tracking at around 1700 total lines of dialogue that have been received and integrated within the game, but there are still plenty more that I'm still waiting to receive and get into the adventure.

I'm also going to be incommunicado for a while as I'll be on holidays for almost two months in the near future and likely nowhere near a computer during that time. Rest assured that when I return, I'll be hard at work to get the project finished!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Not all saves are created equal

A quick post today regarding progress on The Shattered War... or rather as I could put it more accurately, a loss of progress.

One of the quite time consuming but important things I've been doing lately is VO integration. This is where characters animations, the speaker's facial expression and the camera angles used for every single dialogue are checked.  It's making sure that a speaker's arms or hands aren't moving when they should be, or that I customise their movements to better match with the line of dialogue they're speaking.

As I do this, I save regularly.  Unfortunately, unbeknownst to me, that doesn't actually directly and immediately save this information. The Dragon Age toolset saves everything to a database, and it seems that when you hit the save button, that doesn't mean it automatically saves it to the database. Instead, it appears that it merely prepares them to be written to the database.  It appears that the changes aren't written until you either close the dialogue that you're working on within the toolset, or close the toolset entirely.

Why is this a problem? The problem is that the toolset isn't the most reliable of tools. It can, and does, crash periodically. It can easily occur while you're generating lip sync information or previewing dialogue lines, both of which are things you need to do on a regular basis while doing VO integration. If the toolset happens to crash, then all those prepared changes are lost. They're not written to the database.

Unfortunately, I didn't realise this the way that the toolset worked. I've come to this conclusion after losing several hours of VO integration work. After that, I needed to take a bit of a break away from the toolset.  Now that my anger and disappointment have faded, I feel I can restart the process of redoing all the work I've already done once today. I'll also be closing and re-opening the dialogue/toolset on a regular basis to ensure I don't lose any more work.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Assassin's Creed Timeline (Part 9) - We need freedom

My last post was a fairly liberal lambasting of Assassin's Creed 3, where I pretty much railed against nearly every aspect of the game.  I stand by that assessment entirely, but I thought I'd take a slightly different look at why the game didn't work in the context of the overall series.

From their inception, the AC games have been a giant sandbox. While the size and scope of that sandbox has shrunk a little as the series has developed, one of AC3's biggest problems is that it wanted to take the sandbox away entirely. Before anyone starts talking about how there is more side content than ever before, that's part of the problem.

The core problem that runs through the entire game is that AC3 tries to dictate exactly how you should play the game. There is a set way to grow your homestead and specific order for the homestead missions. There's a set path you have to follow to find Captain Kidd's treasure. When you're running along the treetops, there are set intersections where you can switch to a different treetop track. There is frequently only one way to complete each mission and obtain full synchronization.

I wanted freedom, not a preset path. This isn't Assassin of Duty.

Many of the game's designers seem to have forgotten that they are making a sandbox, and that the chief tenet of a sandbox game is player choice. The player should be able to do pretty much whatever they want, whenever they want. AC3 doesn't allow that, and almost at every turn actively tries to constrain the player and send them along the predetermined and preordained path that the designers have laid down. The much hated final chase sequence of the game is a perfect example of how and why this is awful. Even after being patched to make it easier, it's still ridiculously easy for players to fail this sequence if they don't follow the "correct" path. This is exactly the opposite of how a sandbox game should play out.

Compare and contrast to other sandbox games: GTA, Red Dead Redemption, Skyrim, Sleeping Dogs. The core story does have a set path of missions to follow, though even then there are sometimes multiple missions that the player can choose between at certain times. These games infrequently dictate a single path that the player has to follow (outside of things like "race missions"), but instead allow them to make their own choices of what to do and how to do it. This is why they are engrossing and engaging, because they provide an environment in which the player can do whatever they want, but occasionally provide direction and incentive for the player to pursue particular goals. A good sandbox should make the player want to achieve certain goals, rather than dictating to them what they must do and how they should do it.

A sandbox must provide freedom. I hope that everyone involved in the development of AC4 keeps this principle in mind, otherwise it will almost certain turn out to be a mediocre title like AC3.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Assassin's Creed Timeline (Part 8) - Assassin's Creed 3

So I've finished Assassin's Creed 3 and thought it was time to do a continuation of my series of posts about the game series.  I'll start by providing my honest opinion of the game; Assassin's Creed 3 is unequivocally awful. It's a terrible game with poor pacing, bad writing, a dull protagonist, and tedious gameplay. I'm going to throw in some mild spoilers here (for the first few hours of the game), but it's nothing that you probably wouldn't pick up anyway, nor anything worth crying about if you haven't played it.

So the game starts off with you playing Desmond Miles trying to prevent the end of the world, as part of the ongoing "main" plot of the game. It's still as vague and poorly developed as ever, and at this point, the whole charade is just starting to get a little tired.  The snippets we get of the modern day conflict were enough to intrigue for a little while, but continuing to attempt to string people along with vague and indistinct hints and suggestions can only last so long before there's a backlash. We've reached the point where it's no longer interesting, and it just comes across as attempt to sound mysterious without the writers having to actually put in any real effort. Now, I assume that the writers have put in some effort, which just makes this problem even worse because they're withholding information in order to seem brilliant, when all they're achieving is the opposite effect. This is the fifth game in the series - it's time to stop ignoring your "main" storyline. The three snippets of modern day gameplay with virtually no plot development are not sufficient to maintain interest at this point in time. Something needs to happen, but what does end up happening is so overblown that it just comes across as cheap.

"The results are in, guys... we're boring."

The guts of the "real" game is set around the American revolution, where you fight against the evil British loyalists... err, templars.  Seriously, this couldn't be attempting to appeal to American national pride any more if it tried. There's a few token things to try and paint George Washington in a less than favourable light, but there is an awfully large amount of "kill the evil British", which is supposed to be offset by some of this characterisation and the constant humor laden jabs at the US in animus database entries, which I'm guessing a lot of players will never read. There were some minor laughs to be had in that content, which was possibly the highlight of the game. Reading those was one of the few places in the game where I actually was engaged and even amused.

When you get dumped into the animus, because apparently that's the way templars and assassins solve every problem, you start off playing as one Haytham Kenway, in what are possibly some of the most boring hours of gameplay of any Assassin's Creed game. There are constant cutscenes, pre-ordained actions, and missions that feel less like an introduction to the game and more like filling time just so you get some characterisation of Haytham and his associates before the completely unsurprising reveal that Haytham is actually a templar.  For some reason, everyone is shocked by this revelation, even though it was shown in AC2 that Altair married and had children with a former templar. Whoopeedoo. What's more is this reveal is made fairly obvious through some of the dialogue, and stated outright if you actually read the animus entries as you're playing. Well done to the QA team for dropping the ball on that one. The whole first few hours of the game set the tone for the game as a whole, and it is that AC3 isn't about assassinations... it's about cutscenes and faffing about.

"What was that? Sorry, I couldn't hear you over the sound of my smug self-satisfaction. "

After that's done, you start playing as Connor, part of an Native American tribe (he has a native name as well, but that mercifully gets dumped soon into the game) who eventually becomes an assassin. You do have to deal with playing him as a child and a teenager first, which I think is supposed to make him feel more like a real character. Unfortunately, it means you get a lot of tedious dialogue in long, drawn out native language, which is just plain dull. It's been stated previously that the animus does translations - any foreign language has been short and for emphasis, this seems to have been done just for the sake of reinforcing that Connor is a native, which is just unnecessary and makes any cutscenes with it plain dull. You did have to "come of age" in AC2 as Ezio, but this ascent was very short in comparison to AC3's multiple introductions, and handled in a far more engaging way. Playing hide and seek as a child isn't what players signed up for, and this kind of boredom is indicative of the game as a whole even once you do become an assassin.

Playing checkers or various other board games are another way the game artificially pads out its running time, but they simply aren't interesting. The series standard gameplay of "collect trinkets from around the world" is back, this time in the form of feathers, almanac pages (which move and potentially disappear if you don't get them in time) and peg leg trinkets (which can be placed in frustratingly difficult to find and reach places). Homestead missions are typically simple fetch quests, or something equally tedious. The worst case was where one man was asking for help to woo a woman. So Connor asks the farmer's wife for advice, who tells him to fetch some flowers. So the player must climb a cliff, pick flowers, then return to the man... and they are treated to a cutscene where the man is in an outhouse. That's right, the game has the protagonist having a conversation with someone in a toilet. There are various other delivery missions, and the ability to set up trade routes, but their only purpose is to make money, and as with previous games, there's little point to having money, because it's fairly easy to acquire enough for everything you need or want to buy.

Say hello to Connor's housecarl mentor, Token Achilles Davenport.

The assassin recruit and mission interface is unintuitive to the point of stupidity - you have to hold down a button in order to keep the damn thing up, except when you switch to the mission menu, because then you can let go. The weapon changing interface now has a lag as it switches screens, instead of having a neat overlay like ever game before, and it now uses a column setup instead of a wheel interface, which is significantly slower. The game offers "interactive conversation" markers on the map now, though apparently the game designers aren't aware of the meaning of the word "interactive". These are interactive in the sense that you walk up to the person, hit a button and then that person and Connor have a conversation without any input from the player. Then there's "hunting", which unlike hunting in Red Dead Redemption, offers virtually no danger because all the animals that can actually hurt you can be defeated through straightforwardly boring quicktime events. According to many "professional" reviewers, there was something extremely satisfying about leaping from trees to use your hidden blade to kill a hare. I'm sorry, I thought this was Assassin's Creed, not kill-defenseless-animals creed. I guess I forgot that I wanted to sign up with something that actually had entertaining gameplay.

Then there are the naval missions. Now, I loved playing Sid Meier's Pirates!, so I love some good ship combat. However, much like the rest of the game, AC3's ship combat gets repetitive and boring after only a few tries. It's a whole lot of circling around, then holding down and releasing the controller trigger to launch cannonballs. The strategy never really evolves beyond a basic level, and your assistant yells the same handful of lines at you over and over again to the point where you're inclined to mute the sound simply so you don't have to listen to him. It's basically a worse version of Pirates, and from a camera viewpoint that makes it hard to see what's going on. If you want ship combat, just go find yourself a copy of that - it'll be a lot more fun.

"I cannae take it any more, cap'n!"

What is perhaps most disappointing about AC3 is that the setting and the realisation of it is just fairly uninteresting, both of which have been highlights of the series to this point. The architecture simply doesn't compare to that of the previous games, and it's painfully obvious that the designers and art team have realised this at some point during development. Instead of massive sweeping shots that gloriously showcase the landscape and the art of the gameworld that used to be the reward for reaching a viewpoint and hitting that "synchronise" button, you get a short scene involving a couple of sharp camera sweeps, and Connor ends up occupying half the screen for a significant period of that. Even outside of this, fog and haze that obscures your view is commonplace, limiting the vista that you get to see, ensuring that you can't see the extent of the flat and monotonous art from above. While this is partially a result of the time period, the designers did choose this setting. It might be realistic, but that doesn't mean that it's not boring. The PC version appears to be slightly better in this regard, but it's still a clunky and poorly optimised port.

The protagonist is both bland and unlikelable; the few times Connor attempts to display a personality, he's simply whining or complaining about how the person who taught him everything he knows was completely useless. The game effectively wants you to be invested or care about the American Civil War without providing you with any reason to do so. The massive focus on this aspect of history is out of place in comparison to previous games. Though they brought in elements of history and had the protagonist playing a role at the edges, Altair and Ezio were never so heavily involved, and it was never the core focus of the entire narrative. It feels less like the story of the protagonist and more like an exercise of attempting to shoe-horn in as many famous battles, people and locations from the civil war as possible in order for that to be a drawcard. As a result, the game just winds up feeling like a postcard history tour of the period rather than an actual story. Ubisoft pretty much expects you to be impressed and engaged by that story and their telling of it, because they keep shoving cutscene after cutscene in your face. This is the first game I've ever played where I was getting bored and frustrated from too many cutscenes and felt the urge to skip them. I didn't because I kept expecting some sort of interesting plot development, but instead I just kept having to watch key moments of the game instead of getting to play them. I have never, ever felt this way about story and cutscenes in a game before, so the fact that I wanted to skip them should tell you something about how frequent and annoying they are.

But players HAVE to love this battle... because... American History!

Worse is that the main missions of the game don't really deliver anything particularly interesting. There's more than a few cases where you'll end up in a chase or just "travel from location a to location b", or even numerous occasions where the game forces you to WALK as part of a mission. That's right, it's an open world game, but occasionally you're forced to walk (usually at a slow pace) ... just because. There weren't any missions where you can think back and go "oh, that was memorable" - or if you do remember a mission, it was because the premise or the execution (or both) was stupid or annoying. The "optional objectives" that were also in the last two games have returned, but just like in Revelations, there's no reward for completing them, only the impression of punishment if you fail to achieve them. They range from the utterly trivial to the very difficult; and that's presuming that there's not some strange bug that can cause you to fail one of them when you shouldn't, which will likely happen at least a couple of times for many players.  The game also has a number of assassinations end via cutscene; the game sees a return of death monologues as per AC1, though they're slightly shorter, so that's at least a slight improvement.  Arguably the worst assassinations/cutscenes are the ones where deaths happen via... well, they're not so much quicktime events as... events. Numerous times during the game, you'll end up with a cutscene and the game will just stop, and a button will come up on screen, i.e. press X. Except in AC3, it's not "press X to not die", it's "press X to continue." If you don't press X, nothing happens. This is possibly the single most stupid design idea ever created in gaming, and any designer that thinks it is a good idea needs to actually go play some games that have actual gameplay. This isn't even lazy design, it's just plain awful.

There is so much filler content thrown into the game that the designers appear to have forgotten to how to actually make their game fun. Connor can't even kill civilians now, which while a great way to prevent that annoying occurrence where you would end up stabbing an innocent instead of a target, means you no longer have to be careful when hunting a target in a crowd. Now if you hit assassinate near a civilian, Connor just brandishes his blades, which while great for not drawing attention, is a loss for the game overall because it reduces the challenge and the feeling of freedom in the game. The player feels more hand-held and directed than ever before, which just robs the player of freedom. Most missions almost have to be completed in a certain way, particularly if you want to achieve full synchronisation, meaning there is one true way to complete a mission instead of allowing the player to make choices and pick their own means to success, which is a staple tenet/expectation of open-world games. Even the free running in the wilderness along the treetops dictates an almost linear path rather than allowing the player freedom to navigate as they wish. In Boston and New York, I spent most of my time running around on the ground, because there was little point getting onto the rooftops as it wouldn't take long before it was impossible to keep travelling in the direction I wanted without jumping back down to the street.

Parkour? No, players don't want to do that anymore, it's not like it was a key part of the series.

This lack of freedom and blatant hand-holding applies to combat as well, where you get big attack signals pop up over enemies, and for the most part, combat becomes very straightforward once you work out the new pattern of combat - which is different to the previous four games in the series. I don't know how the designers simultaneously managed to make the combat more complicated yet more trivial, but they succeeded. It's trivial apart from a few select enemies that will pretty much counter anything that you throw at them, leaving you two options - stealth kills/assassinations, or shooting them with a firearm. You could also use one of your various gadgets, but then you'd have to switch to your inventory menu screen, and that's a tedious mess that takes time to bring up and navigate instead of the instant overlay of previous games, so you simply won't bother. I should commend the animations in combat, which are fluid and impressive, as are the new climbing and parkour animations, but these do little to redeem the game except occasionally provide a brief "that looks cool" moment when Connor performs a counter on two enemies simultaneously.

The notoriety and alertness system has also been reworked, and as a result, occasionally you'll suddenly find yourself being chased by guards for no apparent reason. Escaping from enemies is now slightly more difficult due to glitchy line of sight issues. You'll be hidden, but as you jump into haycart, your arc takes you up to a height where a guard can see you, thus you're classed as being "seen" so can't hide in the haycart. Occasionally you'll be able to successfully jump into it on the third or fourth attempt, so sometimes it's worth trying that hiding spot multiple times.

Hiding spots are also less frequent than before, and they don't show up on the minimap, so most of the time it's actually more practical to just flee the search radius or kill or the enemies trailing you. It is important to be careful with the latter, however, as once you hit maximum notoriety, enemies will spawn almost constantly, leaving you with no recourse to escape. Furthermore, since this means that enemies attack you on sight, it becomes almost impossible to use the two mechanisms marked on the map to reduce your notoriety (because you can't use them if you're being chased), forcing you to run around the city with a cadre of guards in tow, trying to find and rip down posters to reduce your notoriety to zero before fleeing the search radius of the enemies chasing you. The whole scenario is so ridiculous that it almost feels as though it should be accompanied by Yakety Sax.

Who knew that all the British Regulars had incredible parkour skills?

All in all, there is nothing about Assassin's Creed 3 that is an improvement on the previous games, and almost everything feels like it has gotten worse. I rarely, if ever, felt that I was having fun. I was going through the motions and waiting and expecting to have fun, but it never happened because the game was just so awful. I don't know if it was produced by an entirely different team to the previous games, but it just felt like the whole thing was phoned in and written by a group of high school history students with no knowledge of game design.

In essence, it's still an Assassin's Creed game, so it should be fun, but the fact is that there are so many annoyances that game introduces that just add up to the whole package being bland, tedious, and outright annoying. Don't buy this game, not even if it's on sale. It's not worth your money or your time. At most, read a plot synopsis or watch a video of the ending. I don't like saying this, but AC3 is simply a terrible game from start to finish.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Shattered War: Still Progressing

I realise that I've been less active on this blog of late that I would like, and probably less active than I should be.  This is partly because I've been slightly busier than usual and been able to dedicate less time to blogging and modding than I would like, but also because a lot of the modding work I've been doing lately for The Shattered War hasn't been terribly interesting for people to read about.

Why is that? Mainly because a lot of the work has either been testing and fixing bugs, or writing dialogue scripts. Dialogue scripts are the text files that get sent to voice actors once a role has been filled. This is a test file with a full export of all the character's lines, but heavily annotated. It provides a character biography, so the voice actor has an insight into their personality. It has any background information on the lore or setting that people may not be familiar with that is relevant to the character and their dialogue, along with details of any plots/storylines that the character may be involved with. It also contains a pronunciation guide for the names of other characters or locations.

Voicing a templar would be less convincing without relevant lore knowledge

Finally, the lines are divided up into logical segments to indicate the structure of the dialogue, and also an indication of the character's emotions or thought process behind the line is provided. This allows the voice actor to inject their own skill and take on the character's personality, while remaining true to the core persona with which the character has been written.  There is a delicate balance here - being too prescriptive doesn't allow the voice actor to act properly or give a good range of emotion and characterisation, but too little information and the voice actor may convey something completely different from what is meant in the context of the conversation or situation.

However, all the dialogue and all the scripts for the entire mod have been written, so I'll be running open auditions for all roles until they're filled. If you're at all interested in providing voice acting for any of the characters in the mod, please check out this page for details on characters and how to audition.

That said, there are still a handful of levels in the game that haven't yet been finalised. Some of these I'll be keeping in reserve and won't be publishing screenshots for them - I don't want to give away all the eye candy in the game. Of course, I can't tease you like that with giving a shot from another area that shows off the cold and unforgiving landscape of the setting...

Brrr, it's cold out there...

I'll endeavor to get back to more regular updates of progress on The Shattered War, it's been a very long journey of development thus far, and there's still a substantial amount of work left, but there will be quite a lot of gameplay to show for it once it's finished.